Journal of Southeast Asian Studies
Syed Muhd Khairudin Aljunied
This paper provides a critical historical analysis of the Muhammadiyah movement in Singapore. I argue that four processes have been crucial in the emergence and sustenance of the Muhammadiyah within a predominantly non-Muslim society: the symbiotic relationship between the leaders and their followers, the formulation and subsequent reformulation of the ideology of the movement, political opportunities which were judiciously exploited and the availability of a wide array of infrastructures. The Muhammadiyah, as will be shown, provides an informative example of an Islamic movement in Southeast Asia that has transcended the challenges faced by the minority Muslim population by making effective use of the limited resources at its disposal.
‘The Muhammadiyah we see today is not the same as the Muhammadiyah in the 1950s. It is less interested in ideological struggles. Muhammadiyah has become a populist and socially oriented organization.’ This observation by one of the surviving founders of the movement summarises the major transformations that the movement has undergone during the first five decades of its existence. The preceding discussion has explained how four key processes ensured the formalisation, expansion and popularisation of the Muhammadiyah and the ways in which social, political and ideational developments shaped the evolution of the movement and its impact upon the Singaporean Muslim community. While the symbiotic relationship between the leaders and the rank and file ensured that links with other religious bodies could be forged, the maintenance of a close rapport among the members of the Muhammadiyah enabled the movement to withstand the threat of ideological fissures. Through a continuous reformulation of the movement's ideology, the Muhammadiyah adapted to the changing conditions on the ground. The movement also secured its place as a legitimate body in the eyes of political brokers, while obtaining much-needed backing from international donors through the exploitation of the relevant political opportunities that were open to them. The effective utilisation of different types of infrastructure provided avenues for recruitment and funding for activities, while the ideology of the Muhammadiyah was propagated through less obvious means.....
Finally, this study has two larger implications that should be developed by future research. The first concerns the interface between socio-political developments and the role of ideas in the analysis of grassroots movements in post-war Singapore. All too often, studies of movements in this island city-state have been marked by the lack of an in-depth analysis of the ideas of the participants in these movements, and how these ideas influenced and shaped social life and politics in the country. There is a need to avoid the fallacies of past approaches, and this can be achieved by breaking down the boundaries between social, political and ideational histories. By developing such integrative methodologies, we can deepen and broaden our understanding not only of Islamic movements but also of other movements in Singapore and in Southeast Asia in general.
The second and final implication pertains to the study of Islamic activism in Southeast Asian countries where Muslims are minorities. There has been little research on this topic and it has been overwhelmed by studies concerning extremism and terrorism, many of which were written to inform state policy or to validate jaundiced views about Muslims globally. To the extent that political violence and social unrest are indeed some of the key problems of our time, this fact should not distract us from the urgent task of pioneering new methods and perspectives to further the study of the everyday struggles of minority Muslims in secular settings and their collective efforts to create an environment conducive to Islam.